A story from The Richest Man in Town

A profound sense of sadness shrouded the Martinson home. I dropped by to visit, only hours after Marty had died. Mickey and I hugged each other, and our bodies shook with grief.

Holding her, I whispered, "I'm sorry, Mick."

She said, "I know."

I followed Mickey into the kitchen and we sat down at the table where Marty had taught me so much. Members of their family moved about, not quite knowing what to do.

"We were thinking," Mickey said, "maybe Marty should wear his red Wal-Mart vest in the coffin. That's how most people remember him. What do you think?"

In that instant I couldn't think. I began to cry. Mickey handed me a tissue. In my head I could see him lying there, lifeless, yet strangely proud. My mind's eye seemed to focus on one thing: the name tag bearing "Marty" in bold letters. It would be the same badge I had seen the first time I met him. The thought of Marty's body wearing that vest was so sad, yet so very right.

The funeral was set for a Friday morning at a church in our town. The family assembled in the church basement a half-hour before the service. I was asked to join them as I was to give the eulogy I had promised Marty four months earlier.

"It's time," the funeral director told us. We marched up the steps and followed Marty's coffin, now covered with an American flag, into the worship hall. The church was so filled with people I couldn't pick out any one person.

All had filed past the coffin. He appeared as so many would remember him, wearing the red Wal-Mart vest, the name tag "Marty" pinned on the breast. Then the coffin was closed and, draped with an American flag, brought to the front of the hall.

There was a song, some readings, and another song. The next thing I knew I was standing at the pulpit talking about my friend. I took Marty's advice and took all the time I needed, filling the eulogy with his favorite stories. There was laughter and some tears.

I read from some of the cards sent to Marty when he was in the hospital. I felt it was important to share what other people thought of him.

One woman wrote: "Heard you were not feeling well. I'm praying for you and hoping you will recover soon. I enclosed a photo of myself with my husband and family, as I was not sure you would remember me by name but thought you would remember the face. I've moved to Wisconsin now but remember your warmth and consider you one of those special people I shall never forget. God made you special, Marty, with a heart twice as big as most folks and I love you for it."

To me, Marty represented everything a person of God should be.

After the pastor spoke, two members of the local American Legion Post, dressed in ceremonial attire, took positions at each end of the coffin. They carefully lifted the American flag off the coffin and slowly folded it into a neat triangle. The group leader, now holding the folded flag, walked toward the Martinson family.

Mickey and the family stood up. The leader presented the flag to Mickey and said, "On behalf of the president of the United States and the people of a grateful nation, may I present this flag as a token of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service your loved one rendered this nation." I could hear people weeping.

The funeral director, another one of Marty's friends, had suggested a beautiful tribute for the conclusion of the service. A handshake had been Marty's signature to the world. So Marty's coffin was rolled to the entrance way of the worship hall. As people filed by, they placed a hand on the coffin, the gesture a final handshake for a friend.

Anyone in our town who had not heard about Marty's death would have learned about it by reading our local newspaper. The obituary in its pages captured his spirit-and probably would have made him blush.

"Marty left an indelible mark on the many people who passed through his line at Wal-Mart," the newspaper observed. "No one was a stranger in his line, merely a friend in waiting. His life, guided by his positive attitude, was an inspiration to many people. Saddened by the loss of a husband, father, and friend, people take comfort knowing that Heaven has found a new greeter."

That weekend I found myself drawn to Wal-Mart. There was an eerie emptiness when I walked in the store. But I had heard that Marty's co-workers did something special in honor of him and I needed to see it.

Aisle 9 had been Marty's cash register. It was now decorated with balloons, flowers, pictures of Marty, candles, and a bowl of candy. The light above the cash register was on, signifying that Marty was at his post. Large sheets of poster board lay on the counter for people to write personal thoughts to Marty and his family.

From a safe distance I watched the shoppers as they stopped to pay their respects. Many stood silently, stared at the pictures, and wiped tears from their eyes. I recognized a woman who lived in another town. She was visibly moved, and I stepped forward to ask her if she was all right. "I only saw him once a month for just a few minutes," she said while crying. "He was such a sweet man."

A young woman, with brightly dyed red hair, spent five minutes looking at the pictures and reading some of the notes people had left. Then she gathered her things and went through a checkout line. She had walked twenty feet toward the exit before she stopped and put her bags on the ground. She went back to aisle 9 and wrote a note, not able to leave without saying good-bye.

Hundreds of people did this. "Thank you for making me smile," wrote Christine. A man named Bob wrote, "Marty, you were always so nice to me and my mother." Sheryl penned, "We always went out of our way to stand in Marty's line. He made our day." A woman by the name of Sharon wrote, "We need more Marty's in this world."

Yes, Sharon, we certainly do.

No one was a stranger in his line, merely a friend in waiting.

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